The Sweetest Crop
African bees and the honey they make in the vast and remote wilderness of the Miombo Woodlands are part of a movement to bring development and social upliftment to some of the poorest countries on the continent.
TEXT AND PHOTOS RUSSEL WASSERFALL
Early indications suggest a wonderful 2020 crop of dark amber, floral honey, with a rich enzyme content.
There is a ribbon of savannah woodlands draped across the waist of the African continent from the coast of Northern Mozambique in the East, to the Angolan Highlands on the West coast. It is known to science as the Miombo Woodlands and is home to a threatened kingdom of semi-deciduous flowering trees. It is also the source of some of the most pristine honey on the planet.
Beekeeping is a centuries-old tradition here, but ironically, old bee farming practices are threatening the trees almost as much as human settlement. A traditional hive here is made by ring-barking a tree and then forming the bark into a cylindrical hive. The tree dies, and an untreated bark hive lasts only a season or two in the tropical rains before a new tree must be sacrificed.
This form of beekeeping accounts for as much as 15 percent of tree loss in the region every year. By far the biggest culprits for destruction though are charcoal production for cooking fires, and the clearing of land for subsistence crops.
When the Amazon fires that stunned the world in 2019 were shown to be mirrored by fires in southern Africa, it was the Miombo Woodlands that were burning.
Tree clearance has an impact not only on the flora here, but also on the fauna that shelters and lives there. Biodiversity is at risk with the loss of every tree.
For generations, people living in and around the Miombo Woodlands have grown crops, herded livestock and foraged among the trees to survive.
On the face of it, clearing an acre of land to plant maize may not be problematic in isolation. Growing populations however multiply every acre cleared a thousand times.
Viewed like this, it’s not hard to see how some of the most precious natural resources on the planet might be wiped out within a generation. And it happens one acre at a time.
Once the beekeepers are trained and their hives are sited, each one is logged so the honey can be traced to source.
Like the Amazon forest, the vegetation of Africa is one of the planet’s ‘lungs.
Like the Amazon forest, the vegetation of Africa is one of the planet’s ‘lungs. Preserving the woodlands and its creatures, big and small, is the pre-occupation of a number of aid and humanitarian organizations working throughout the region. As it is home to some of the poorest communities on the planet, any environmental work undertaken here has to involve and uplift local people.
For over a decade, aid and development workers in the region have been seeing honey production as a means both to preserve the environment and provide meaningful incomes for local people.
Zambia is a typical example of how countries traversed the sub-tropical woodland belt have turned to the bees to help their economies thrive. Exports of Zambian honey have been increasing steadily over the past decade and it is now a thriving industry there.
Late in 2018, South African honey and bee entrepreneur, Jacques Hurter was asked to assess the potential for honey production as an engine for economic upliftment in North-Western Zambia. He was stunned by the quality and abundance of the honey to be found in the woodlands.
One of his observations was just how hard-working people in these far-flung rural communities were. Everything the developed world takes for granted is a back-breaking chore here. Something as basic as water had to be drawn from a river or a well and carried home.
Land had to be cleared for planting, kept free of weeds, fenced against wildlife, watered and finally, harvested. Schools are few and often far from small homesteads or settlements. Healthcare is in the hands of nurses in a few regional clinics and village midwives deliver babies.
Traditional beekeeping in the region is practiced with bark hives which kill the trees used to make them.
The struggle of these communities’ daily lives was played out against the backdrop of a thriving ecosystem dripping in a wealth of honey. Determined to do something about this, Hurter enlisted the help of a well-connected local farmer to form the Musanya Honey Company.
Musanya would provide the hives and training necessary with a guaranteed buy-back scheme for every kilogram of honey produced. It would then take the honey to a global market, making it a valuable income source for the local farmers. The income is renewable, sustainable, and far more lucrative than charcoal production.
As other operators in the field have found, making honey a cash crop immediately assigned a value to the bees and to the trees where they gather nectar. With this value chain established, beekeepers and their communities come to see the woodlands as an asset worth protecting and preserving.
The biggest challenge facing these bee projects is the remoteness of the communities where the best honey is found.
Small villages are scattered far from infrastructure and pollution, where a journey of 100 km can take two days in the rainy season. Getting the hives there is a massive logistical undertaking, but the remoteness makes the honey all the sweeter. Pesticides are unheard-of, and the woodlands are a pristine garden of Eden.
Once in the woodlands, hives are distributed to families who sign up for the project through local leaders. Training in assembly, siting and care of hives is conducted and, once they are established, each hive is identified and marked on a GPS-based mobile app.
Traceability using block chain technology is a major factor in the fledgling honey industry of the region. Musanya’s global reach means the honey can find its way to lucrative markets bringing the benefit of good prices to beekeepers.
Perhaps more important, tracking the honey from hive to shelf connects the rural farmer with international markets and trade. Bees are broadening the horizons of remote African farmers.
A few hives can mean the start of a new business and emancipation for women beekeepers, school fees for children, or a new clinic.
July 2020 marks the first major harvest for the farmers under the Musanya banner. It’s the acid test so to speak, where the strength and flexibility of the scheme will be put to the test in bringing honey from this newly opened section of the Miombo Woodlands will be gathered and brought to market.
The network of farmers and administrators will see the benefits of their patience and hard work for the first time. Each hive can potentially deliver as much as 20 kg of rich, raw honey each season.
With ten units allocated per family and over ten thousand distributed to date, the impact will be enormous.
Early indications, and samples of the honey sent for grading and testing, are promising. The season’s crop is a rich amber colour with a strong floral note on the palate. With Zambian honey already attracting notice for its purity and high enzymatic content, it will not be long before the Musanya’s 2020 crop is available online, or on a food market shelf near you.
People in this remote and pristine Eden live simple lives, often blissfully unaware of the potential hanging in the trees around them.